Movie Review: “Magic in the Moonlight” (Woody Allen, USA 2014)

Woody Allen is an atheist. He is a melancholic. And Magic in the Moonlight wonders if these things are related. It says that magic and escapism make us happy but are an empty happiness but that logical reality is a truthfully sad existence, one where the world doesn’t give us joys.

But then it says, “Well, even in cold, logical reality, there is one piece of inexplicable magic: love.”

Allen has always been obsessed with the idea that love is mysterious and remarkably varied–his execrable Whatever Works (USA/France 2009) was, after all, saying, “You can’t question another person’s relationship, because whatever makes them happy is fine.” He’s always viewed “love” as some sort of ineffable force, one that brings together people who have little in common and at one point didn’t like each other in Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986), an un-artistic intellectual with a musician in Annie Hall (USA 1977), and a “debunker” with a psychic in Magic in the Moonlight.

What’s frustrating about Magic in the Moonlight is that it spends so much time setting up its punchline and focusing on its plot that it completely forgets to make its point. The supporting characters only matter for the story, not for the point. There aren’t other examples there to make the point (In fact, the couples are weirdly happy for a Woody Allen film.). There’s just the basic main plot, and the film seems very pleased with its own cleverness.

The film tells the story of a magician/”debunker” named Stanley who is clearly based on James Randi with a dash of Chung Ling Soo as he works to expose a pretty young psychic named Sophie Baker. He first starts falling for her act, then falls for her. Then, when he finds out that the act was a trick perpetrated by both Sophie and Stanley’s fellow magician friend Howard Burkan, the feelings do not go away. So, he predictably breaks up with his age-appropriate, entirely logical fiancee in order to be with her.

Unfortunately, as clever as that may sound and as fun as much of it is, the film just isn’t as smart as it needs to be. The con is really obvious and any half-decent magician should have spotted it, and the idea that a hardened skeptic could be that easily turned just because it happens to be a pretty girl is frankly insulting.

Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji gives us a brightly-lit film with saturated colors, but they don’t do a lot to enhance the film’s point. Instead, the film just looks old-fashioned, befitting its time setting and Allen’s general sensibilities. It’s at least something different from what else is out there, but it’s not particularly interesting.

The acting is typically uneven for a Woody Allen film. Colin Firth’s performance as Stanley is rather a mess–he’s all stagey bravado with no depth or even basic human emotion until after his aunt’s accident. After the accident, he suddenly becomes a deeper, more emotional character, and Firth plays that part better. Emma Stone, meanwhile, is surprisingly excellent as the psychic. When Firth says, “She’s not even a good actress,” it’s easy to nod, because Sophie really isn’t good, and playing a bad actor is something that requires great skill. Jeremy Shamos has a small part, but he’s awful. He’s grinning inappropriately throughout the entire film. Simon McBurney is also pretty poor as Howard Burkan, obviously mugging for laughs even though his character doesn’t have the lines that will get the laughs.

Overall, Woody Allen is far from his best on Magic in the Moonlight. That’s not to say it’s awful–it’s a fun watch and it still has some great humor, but it’s nowhere near as smart or deep as it needs to be to be a great film. It’s a film someone else could have made, and if there is one sin Woody Allen should never commit, it’s to appear ordinary. I’m not sorry I saw it, but it’s far from memorable.

Notes

  • “Did you know he started out as an escape artist?” Gee, I wonder where he got that idea.
  • Stanley’s act that we see at the opening is not really that special, but it is fun that it is just so time-appropriate. Of course Allen, a student of magic, knows that.
  • The observatory opening with the telescope was Freudian imagery Hitchcock would have been proud of. It was also quite overdone.

Anatomy of a Scene: “Annie Hall” (Woody Allen, USA 1977)

Annie Hall, one of the greatest films ever made, is at once devilishly complex and remarkably simple. On the side of simplicity, it wears its point on its sleeve and never hides what it’s saying for a second. However, it also is built on a remarkably complex narrative structure (essentially the same structure that director Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber would use years later for the also-brilliant [500] Days of Summer [USA 2009]) and filled with the type of sophisticated, intellectual humor that only Woody Allen can pull off.

The film can be summed up quite well with two scenes: the opening and the ending. Technically, the ending as I am defining it is actually a sequence rather than a scene, but it’s my blog and there are technically very few scenes in Annie Hall longer than a few seconds.

Opening Scene

The film opens with Allen, by then a star both as a comedian and as a filmmaker, standing in front of a plain red screen and telling us a joke. The character, Alvy Singer, is also a comedian (though we don’t know that yet), and so he relates to the world through humor, even when he isn’t using it for the sake of humor. He tells the joke, but he tells it to make a point.

The joke ends with an explanation: “That’s essentially how I feel about life–full of misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Alvy Singer is now quickly defined for us–someone who has a sense of humor, but a sense of humor that is informed by a real sense of moroseness. We also now know something about how this film is going to work–it doesn’t care about the fourth wall and it lives inside Singer’s head. Originally, the film was much longer and included many more sequences like the one that follows this opening in which Alvy discusses his childhood. While the final film is no longer quite so much in his mind, we still have to know quickly that Alvy is our narrator and not exactly a reliable one.

“I would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life, especially in terms of my relationships with women.” This may be more personal than any of you want to know, but I used to have a very close friend who told me that she loved Woody Allen, “because he reminds me of you.” I think this line is why. In general, the more I like someone, the more difficulty I have talking to them. Maybe Alvy and I are the only two people like this on the planet, but it’s an important thing to know about Alvy before the film really gets going.

The entire scene is just Allen in front of a red background. It’s not exactly the type of shot that turned cinematographer Gordon Willis into “The Lord of Darkness,” but the restraint and simplicity that Allen and Willis show here is great, and the red background is nice for the way it sets the scene apart from the “reality” of the rest of the film. Red is a decidedly unnatural background color, so this speech is clearly Alvy talking to us as an audience, not talking to someone who is in the audience’s position.

Aside: The Guy in the Movie Theater Line

Yes, I realize that I basically am that guy. (Though his opinions are ridiculous.)

Ending

While this scene is not continuous with the ending, it’s important to understanding the ending: Alvy arrives at a crowded outdoor L.A. restaurant in a long shot that barely allows us to notice him. He’s part of the crowd to Annie now, and as much as he doesn’t fit in with the style of these Californians, he feels like a background character when he’s out here. Allen then cuts to a close-up of Alvy as Annie walks by on the edge of the frame, entering the restaurant unseen and then joining Alvy for the final conversation. It’s shot in simple close-up one and two shots, always showing us whichever character is talking.

A few minutes later, when the ending proper begins, we get close-up one-two shots of two actors repeating the same conversation that Alvy and Annie just had. Then it moves to a longer shot showing us that it’s two actors working in front of a small group including Alvy. He has changed the ending of the conversation–he gets up to end it instead of Annie doing so and she changes her mind and decides to go with him. Then, a close-up of Alvy as he admits to the silliness by saying, “What do you want? It was my first play.” Again, the fourth wall is broken and Alvy relates to the audience through a telling humor. This time, though, one thing that’s different is Alvy’s face as he delivers the line. Before, while he was making a point rather than trying for a joke, he was also pleased with himself. This time, he’s disappointed–Woody Allen has never really been much of an actor, but he’s had his moments, and that look of discontent is definitely one of them.

Then, we get a short montage that begins with a long shot through a restaurant window of Alvy and Annie having lunch as Alvy tells us that they ran into each other and just caught up. It’s a distant shot like what we saw in the restaurant, once again telling us that Alvy is no longer part of Annie’s world but now, with both of them sealed off from the world, Annie is also not a part of Alvy’s. They may be together, but they are also apart.

The rest of the montage is just vignettes we’ve already seen of their relationship that are really just filling time for Alvy’s voice over until it ends with Alvy and Annie standing on a street corner shaking hands. Alvy is again reminded of a joke, “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy–he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ ‘Well, I would, but, uh, I need the eggs.’ I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.” While he’s telling us the joke, he and Annie shake hands, he kisses her on the cheek, and she walks away. Then, the “Don’t Walk” light over Alvy’s head changes to “Walk,” and he walks away. It’s a pretty obvious message, but it cannot be delivered much more beautifully and succinctly than that street sign. And that type of obviousness, done well, is still effective, as Willis showed with some very respected other works of his that you may recognize.

Maybe I’m something of a sucker for that message as someone who is far too shy and reserved to listen to it (After all, I have been trying for months now to find some way to learn to play this admittedly silly song–and yes I am mentioning it because I still am trying!) and I can admit that it’s rather simplistic, but Annie Hall delivers that message as well as it can be delivered: relationships are absurd and crazy, but if we don’t go for them, we wind up just standing still while all the traffic passes us by on a street corner.

Movie Review: “Blue Jasmine” (Woody Allen, USA 2013)

I have a friend who responds to every negative review I write by saying, “You just don’t like anything unless it’s Woody Allen.” I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen’s work. I was angry for months about the fact that I had to wait to see this film because it never came to theaters here. So, needless to say, I was hoping for another masterpiece. I didn’t get it, but I have said that part of why I think Woody Allen is so great is that his non-masterpieces are often still good films, and Blue Jasmine is a definite example.

In recent years, Woody Allen has vacillated between love letters to major cities and updates of classic literature. The fact that no city is name-checked in the title of Blue Jasmine is enough that we could tell where this film would go, and it is indeed a sly update of A Streetcar Named “Desire.

There are a number of themes to the play, but Allen’s film distills it down to the simple idea that wealth and success are only facades for people who are no different than those they view as inferior. Suitably, he therefore tones down the awfulness of Stanley Kowalski and the bizarreness of his relationship with Stella and revamps the reasons behind her breakdown in order to allow both the wealthy, cultured world that she used to inhabit to share much in common with the shabby world her sister inhabits. It’s a smart reworking of a play that, as written, is too complex for a film, and it shows an admirable focus on its point that many directors would do well to pay attention to.

In the play, Blanche DuBois goes to live with her sister after her wealthy husband’s suicide, which is eventually revealed to have been precipitated by the revelation of the fact that he was having an affair with another man. Allen instead introduces Jasmine, who comes to live with her sister after her husband’s suicide that he committed in prison after being financially ruined when the government discovers some sort of financial fraud (the crime is really not explained at all, but fraud seems pretty likely). It’s a change that fuels much of Blue Jasmine, and makes its point quite clear: the wealthy and successful are no different than the “lower” classes, as evidenced by the rich scumbag that she married compared to the men, scumbags and decent, whom her sister Ginger meets along the way. We get examples of a decent-if-crude-and-selfish guy in Ginger’s current beau Chili and a seemingly-sweet-wife-cheater in Al, showing us that it’s not just Jasmine’s world that includes cheats and liars, but that they are still there.

And Jasmine attempts to rebuild her life from the bottom up but she doesn’t really know how to do it. She works at it, but never stops looking down her nose at her sister’s life and cannot resist the temptation to go for a shortcut in getting a man to take her back into high society without having to work at it herself. And, meanwhile, she is breaking down under the stress of her situation, losing herself in memories of her past pain to the point that she plays out the conversations aloud in public with no hint of self-awareness.

Acting-wise, there is really only one performance here, and it is a whale of a performance: Cate Blanchett is given a role that is only slightly altered from the Blanche DuBois role that has drawn comparisons to the title role in Hamlet and absolutely knocks it out of the park. The strain and stress of her everyday life, the ease with which she carries herself when she feels back and home in high society, the pain of her losses and breakdowns, and of course the bewilderment of her complete mental lapses are all clear on her face. More importantly, they feel real in a role that could easily be over the top (as Vivien Leigh has shown . . . ), making this woman’s breakdown all the more heartbreaking and powerful. Otherwise, no one really stands out in a good or bad way.

Visually, Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe unfortunately don’t do too much. Allen has never seemingly had too much of a visual imagination, with his best visual films all being photographed by either the Prince of Darkness (Gordon Willis) or Sven Nykvist, perhaps the two greatest cinematographers in Hollywood’s history. Aguirresarobe has himself handled the camera for a truly great film (Hable con Ella [Pedro Almodóvar, Spain 2002]), but he doesn’t have anywhere near the resume of those two giants, and it shows. Blue Jasmine is by no means a visual mess, but it is so conventional and lacking anything particularly interesting that there just isn’t much to say. It works well enough but doesn’t advance the point of the film at all, which is a shame for a film that has enough other elements to be excellent.

The score is made up entirely of already existing music, as is Allen’s norm, but it deserves mention for being a distracting score that rarely befits what is happening on screen. It often seems to be playing for laughs in a film that otherwise uses a bit of comedy but is overall rather serious. I don’t know if I’m misreading what Allen was intending somewhere or what, but this score is horrendous.

Overall, this is a good but not great film. It’s a bit thin and its lack of visual imagination and annoying score take away from a well-written story with a truly brilliant lead performance, but that all still adds up to at least an enjoyable experience.

Woody Allen List Update

This is the first Woody Allen film to come out since I started the blog, but I have long since watched every film of his career and ranked them all, a ranking which I update with every release. I do not include Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, USA 1972) even though Allen wrote and starred in both the film and the play because he did not direct the film or Don’t Drink the Water (Woody Allen, USA 1994) because it is a television film. This list is my personal ranking of all of Woody Allen’s films, and it probably leans a bit more on my personal enjoyment than it should (and thus I reshuffle it a bit every time), but I always have fun updating it, so here it is anyway:

  1. Annie Hall (USA 1977)
  2. The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985)
  3. Deconstructing Harry (USA 1997)
  4. Love and Death (USA 1975)
  5. Match Point (UK/Luxembourg 2005)
  6. Midnight in Paris (Spain/USA 2011)
  7. Sleeper (USA 1973)
  8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain/USA 2008)
  9. Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986)
  10. Stardust Memories (USA 1980)
  11. Take the Money and Run (USA 1969)
  12. Interiors (USA 1978)
  13. Zelig (USA 1983)
  14. Radio Days (USA 1987)
  15. Broadway Danny Rose (USA 1984)
  16. Anything Else (USA/France/UK 2003)
  17. Cassandra’s Dream (USA/UK/France 2007)
  18. Manhattan (USA 1979)
  19. Shadows and Fog (USA 1991)
  20. Husbands and Wives (USA 1992)
  21. Blue Jasmine (USA 2013)
  22. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (USA/Spain 2010)
  23. Bananas (USA 1971)
  24. Manhattan Murder Mystery (USA 1993)
  25. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (USA 1972)
  26. Melinda and Melinda (USA 2004)
  27. Crimes and Misdemeanors (USA 1989)
  28. Alice (USA 1990)
  29. To Rome with Love (USA/Italy/Spain 2012)
  30. Scoop (UK/USA 2006)
  31. Mighty Aphrodite (USA 1995)
  32. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (USA 1982)
  33. Everyone Says I Love You (USA 1996)
  34. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (USA/Germany 2001)
  35. Small Time Crooks (USA 2000)
  36. Sweet and Lowdown (USA 1999)
  37. Hollywood Ending (USA 2002)
  38. September (USA 1987)
  39. Bullets Over Broadway (USA 1994)
  40. Another Woman (USA 1988)
  41. Celebrity (USA 1998)
  42. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (USA/Japan 1966)
  43. Whatever Works (USA/France 2009)